Inside the Heated Battle Between Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf and America’s PGA Tour

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Aitor Alcalde/LIV Golf/Getty
Aitor Alcalde/LIV Golf/Getty

The main golf league in North America dramatically suspended 17 of its players less than 30 minutes after they teed off at a new Saudi league’s inaugural tournament.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan says the golfers who defected to the brand new LIV Golf tour won’t be allowed to play at PGA events for the foreseeable future. The PGA hosts major men’s golf tournaments like the Presidents Cup, The Players Championship, and the FedEx Cup.

Monahan claims the athletes didn’t get permission to play for the new league and accused them of leaving for “financial-based reasons.”

The aggrieved golf boss added that their “expectation” that they would receive PGA membership benefits while playing for a different league “disrespects” their colleagues, according to a letter obtained by USA Today reporter Eamon Lynch.

The letter was made public just minutes after the players hit their opening tee shots at LIV’s first tournament near London on Thursday morning. The game kicked off at 9:15 a.m. EST, according to Sports Illustrated, and the letter ousting the players was already on Twitter by 9:39 a.m.

The send-off concluded with a list of names of all 17 golfers who joined LIV, including six-time major champion Phil Mickelson and two-time major champion Dustin Johnson.

Nine of the players, including Johnson, Kevin Na and Sergio Garcia, had already resigned.

Controversy over their departures is about more than just workplace loyalty. LIV Golf is mostly backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and largely seen as a propaganda operation intended to improve the oil-rich monarchy’s public image in the wake of many documented cases of human-rights violations, including mass executions, the repression of free speech, capital punishment for homosexuality, zero punishment for statutory rape, connections to 9/11, and its role in the Yemeni Civil War. Notably, U.S. intelligence has accused MBS himself of ordering the brutal torture and dismemberment of dissident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The PIF invested $2 billion in a private equity firm headed by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner shortly after his leaving the White House, as well as $1 billion in a fund established by Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

For the 17 players in question, what the league lacks in moral standing is apparently made up for in dollars.

Seven of the LIV’s upcoming tournaments are giving out a total of $25 million in prizes, the highest amount in golf history, ESPN reports. A team championship in Miami set to kick off on October 27 at the Trump National Doral—yes, controlled by none other than the Saudi-friendly former president—is giving out $50 million.

No matter how they play, some of the players are making out like bandits.

Dustin Johnson, who resigned from the PGA this week, reportedly got $125 million to join LIV.

Mickelson, for his part, got a reported $200 million to sign on to the new venture. The decorated golfer defended his decision to join the new tour at a press conference in England on Wednesday.

“I understand people have very strong opinions and may disagree with my decision, and I can empathize with that,” Mickelson said. “But at this time, this is an opportunity that gives me a chance to have the most balance in my life going forward, and I think this is going to do a lot of good for the game.” (Mickelson has an estimated net worth of $400 million.)

Adding that he doesn’t “condone human-rights violations at all,” he declined to say exactly how much he was getting paid to spurn his longtime league.

“I feel that contract agreements should be private,” he said. “Doesn’t seem to be the case, but it should be.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Phil Mickelson of the United States talks to Saudi businessman Yasir Al-Rumayyan during the Pro-Am ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational at The Centurion Club on June 08, 2022, in St Albans, England.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Charlie Crowhurst/LIV Golf/Getty</div>

Phil Mickelson of the United States talks to Saudi businessman Yasir Al-Rumayyan during the Pro-Am ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational at The Centurion Club on June 08, 2022, in St Albans, England.

Charlie Crowhurst/LIV Golf/Getty

Dustin Johnson, the No. 15 player in the world according to the Official World Golf Ranking, told reporters on Wednesday that leaving the PGA was not an easy decision.

“I chose what is best for me and my family,” he said.

Not everyone was swayed by LIV’s well-padded offers.

Greg Norman, a two-time major champion and the CEO of LIV, told the Washington Post that Tiger Woods—the PGA’s most valuable player—turned down a deal that was “mind-blowingly enormous; we’re talking about high nine digits.”

Some players have expressed concern that their colleagues are simply turning their backs on the PGA—and by extension, America—for a payday.

“The [Saudis] are going to lose interest eventually. I think we all have a little bit of a responsibility to leave the game better than when we got here, and repping for a shady government with a questionable record isn’t doing that,” one player who was approached by LIV but refused to leave told ESPN.

“I think it’s a shame that it’s going to fracture the game,” offered four-time major winner Rory McIlroy.

The first LIV tournament in the U.S. will kick off at the Pumpkin Ridge in Portland, Oregon, on June 30.

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